‘Antique Smith’ the Affable Forger

A hundred years ago in Edinburgh it was possible to pick up for a few shillings manuscripts by Burns, Scott, Hogg, Thackeray, Mary Queen of Scots or Oliver Cromwell. The bargains were incredible – a song by Burns in his own handwriting for as little as 30s! To many collectors these bargains must have seemed too good to be true. And indeed they were too good to be true, for they were all forgeries, hundreds of them, all the work of an obscure clerk called Smith. This mass production of forgeries created an enormous sensation in the literary world, for forgery on such a massive scale had never been known before in Scotland.

fergusd01pic1.jpg The forgery of literary manuscripts is a comparatively rare crime. In the present century the wholesale forgeries of Thomas J Wyse (‘the secret Emperor and Grand Lama of Forgers’) were exposed in 1934, but not before he had produced a whole library of spurious works by George Eliot, the Brownings, Kipling, Ruskin, Swinburne etc., etc. His efforts were puny when compared with the output of the Frenchman, Lucan Vrain, whose 27,000 autographs included those of Alexander the Great, Caesar, Cleopatra, Herod, Judas Iscariot, Attila the Hun, Lazarus (after his resurrection), Mary Magdalene and scores of others – all in modern French. It is a feature of most literary forgers that they are not content to confine their efforts to one famous personality, and our Edinburgh forger could – and did – produce autographs and documents by writers as varied as Lord Nelson, David Hume, Mrs Hemans and Prince Charles Edward.

He seems to have started operations in the 1880s, for it was at that time that a customer began to frequent the second-hand bookshops of Edinburgh. One of his favourite haunts was the shop in Leith Walk of Bobbie Williamson, a shop still remembered fondly by a few ancient bibliophiles. The customer, described as ‘brisk in movement and in manner affable,’ took a particular interest in English printed folios and works bound in vellum. He had no interest in the contents: histories, sermons, poetry were all one to him. But the books had to have blank fly leaves. He would buy as many as half a dozen at a time, and very considerately, he declined any offer to have them delivered to his home, but insisted in carrying them off in bulky parcels.

Towards the end of 1886 a secondhand bookseller, Andrew Brown, had a visitor who called at his shop at 15 Bristo Place, offering him an album that contained a number of letters and autographs, including some by Sir Walter Scott, Admiral Cochrane and Thackeray. Mr Brown offered the visitor 15s. (say £40 in modern money) which was accepted. Shortly after, a customer came in and bought the album for £1.

This seems to have been the first appearance of the mysterious manuscripts that flooded Edinburgh over the next five years. Letters, poems, single autographs and every type of historic document appeared in bookshops, auction salerooms and pawnshops. One of the keenest book-collectors in Edinburgh was Mr James Mackenzie of 2 Rillbank Crescent. He claimed to have been collecting for twenty-five years, and eventually he decided to sell some of his famous Rillbank Collection, and they came up for auction in Edinburgh in May 1891. Before the start of the sale, the auctioneer made a curious disclaimer. Some people, he said, had claimed that these items were forgeries. For his part, he thought they were genuine, but he was not prepared to give a guarantee. In view of this warning, the prices realised were low. Five autograph letters by Burns, including a poem, went for less than 2 guineas; a song in his handwriting went for 30s.

Three months later, the Cumnock Express printed an unpublished letter of Burns’ which was part of Mr Mackenzie’s Rillbank Collection. The letter was addressed to a Mr John Hill, weaver, of Cumnock who was apparently an old friend of Burns. A reader of the Express, a keen Burnsian, went to the trouble of researching the history of John Hill and discovered that there had never been anyone of that name in Cumnock, weaver or otherwise. He suggested that there was something suspicious about the Rillbank Collection and asked for its history. An expert in historic documents, a Mr Colvill-Scott of Surrey, then entered the controversy and declared that there were dozens of Scott and Burns forgeries circulating in Scotland. Mr Mackenzie’s answer to this was to publish in the Express two unpublished Burns poems from his collection. One was called ‘The Poor Man’s Prayer’ and the other ‘Some verses written after hearing a sermon in Tarbolton Kirk.’

Poor Mr Mackenzie! Unfortunately for him one of the readers of the Cumnock Express happened to be exceptionally well-read in the minor poetry of the eighteenth century, and he recognised that ‘The Poor Man’s Prayer’ had been published in 1766 when Burns was only seven. It was the work of William Hayward Roberts, a Provost of Eton, who had also written the ‘Tarbolton’ poem. When challenged, Mackenzie tried to bluster that he had discovered his forgeries in a secret drawer in an old cabinet. Nobody believed him. Presumably he had bought his collection in Edinburgh. He may have known that it consisted of fakes or he may not. At any rate he had committed no crime, and he fades from the picture.

Another well-known Edinburgh bookseller was involved in this shady business. He was Mr James Stillie of 19a George Street, described as a ‘highclass amateur MS collector.’ He had a hatred of ‘experts,’ as well he might, as experts declared that a bundle of Burns and Scott letters that he had sold to an English collector were palpable forgeries. Stillie claimed to know better than the experts as he had known Sir Walter Scott personally for over fifty years. If true, this would have made Mr Stillie at least 107 years old. (In fact he was 88 at the time). Meanwhile an American collector to whom Stillie had sold 202 Burns manuscripts became worried about the reports of fakes, and sent these manuscripts to the British Museum where handwriting experts guaranteed that 201 of the 202 manuscripts were fakes. The American raised an action in the Court of Session for the recovery of the £750 he had paid for the fakes. Stillie pleaded for mercy on the grounds of his age and poor health and the American mercifully dropped the action.

It is obvious that neither Mackenzie nor Stillie had produced the forgeries, although almost certainly they knew them to be fakes. In November 1892 the Edinburgh Evening Dispatch printed a series of articles on the forgeries, and these included facsimiles of some of the notes that had been attached to the fakes. A keen reader thought he recognised the handwriting as that of a copying clerk named Smith who had done work for various law offices in Edinburgh. This man, Alexander Howland Smith, had the nickname ‘Antique’ Smith because he dealt in old documents and what would now be called ephemera. When he was questioned he explained that he had been employed as chief clerk of Thomas Henry Ferrier WS. Over the years a vast collection of old documents had accumulated in the cellars of the law office and Mr Ferrier had asked Smith to get rid of them. Smith had taken the papers home and examined them. To his surprise and pleasure he had found that many of them were of value and he had been selling these to booksellers, auction rooms and pawnbrokers. When the original stock ran out he had provided fakes to replace them. He claimed that he was able to supply any type of document required.

He was arrested and on 26th June 1893 he appeared in the High Court of Justiciary, charged with ‘selling and pawning spurious MSS as genuine, obtaining money by pretending that certain documents were genuine and what they purported to be, and by certain false stories as to their origin, you knowing the said documents to be false.’

fergusd01pic2.jpg The first witness was ‘Bristo’ Brown, who testified that he had bought a number of documents from Smith, believing them to be genuine. As Smith continued to supply him with a seemingly inexhaustible store of letters, poems and historic documents, Brown must almost certainly have known that they were spurious, but no charges were brought against him or any of the other dealers who had helped Smith to dispose of his wares. Not all the Edinburgh booksellers accepted Smith at his word. The bearer of a famous name, Mr George Thin, testified that he had paid £12 for a bundle of documents which had been pawned (and unredeemed) by Smith with the Equitable Loan Company. The day after buying them, Mr Thin had recognised them as forgeries and had put them aside before handing them over to the Procurator Fiscal.

The evidence given by experts was that the forgeries were unbelievably clumsy and should not have deceived any knowledgeable person for five minutes. For example, it appeared that Mary Queen of Scots, Rob Roy and Claverhouse had all used the same make of paper – and incidentally it seemed that Claverhouse had been signing his name after his death at the Battle of Killiecrankie. Documents supposed to date from the 17th century had been written with a steel pen in modern ink. The yellow antique appearance of some of the documents had been achieved by dipping them in weak tea.

Just how many forgeries Smith produced in his little summer-house at the back of Hope Crescent will never be known. London auctioneers testified that large bundles of forged papers were forwarded to them from towns in every part of the United Kingdom, and many of them must have gone abroad. At least one Canadian city was the proud possessor of a Burns manuscript, as produced by A H Smith. It may be that many specimens of Smith’s penmanship are cherished in modern collections.

The Lord Justice Clerk pointed out that Smith was not charged with forgery. It was no crime, he said, to fabricate documents any more than it was to copy a picture. Neither was it a crime to tell lies about the forgery. The crime was to obtain money by pretending the documents were genuine.

After half an hour the jury found Smith guilty on all charges but recommended leniency. They must have felt that the dealers who bought his fakes so eagerly were just as guilty as he was. He was sentenced to twelve months’ imprisonment, the one and only mass-producer of literary forgeries in Scottish history.

Copyright David Fergus.